King County needs to stop favoring bus service in the suburbs and invest where people need it most—in Seattle—according to the recent recommendations of a 28-member regional transportation task force. Surprisingly, even the group's suburban members, whose communities may lose some service, supported the recommendation as a long-term tactic to prevent mortal cuts to the bus system countywide.
"It's not a bad deal," says Noel Gerken, a member of the task force and mayor of Maple Valley, an exurb about 20 miles southeast of Seattle. "If you have strong [ridership], you'll keep your routes."
Called the King County Regional Transit Task Force, the group is trying to prove King County Metro can be streamlined and efficient—and then make a plea to state lawmakers in January to replace funding that's about to run out. "Transit is about to go off a cliff here at the end of 2011," says King County Council member Larry Phillips, a longtime advocate for making Metro more efficient and a member of the task force. "We are just going to run out of money, and people will be stranded."
Sales taxes, which make up about 62 percent of all King County Metro funding, have dived in recent years because of the recession's dip in retail activity. Already, the county has deferred the recession's worst impacts on Metro by streamlining the budget—such as making cuts to automatic raises for drivers—but by 2012, forecasts show bus routes will be eviscerated. The equivalent of 15 full routes in Seattle would be eliminated, Phillips says. In numeric terms, Metro is bracing for a shortfall of $1.2 billion between now and 2015, which manifests as 600,000 fewer service hours. The questions now are whether the King County Council will adopt recommendations to reorganize Metro's service and if the state legislature will find alternative means to keep buses running.
There are two problems afoot:
The first is something called the 40/40/20 rule, established in King County Metro's six-year plan (from 2002 to 2007), which the task force wants to do away with. It dictates that new service must be divided: 40 percent to east King County suburbs, 40 percent to south King County suburbs, and the remaining 20 percent to Seattle and a few northern suburbs like Shoreline. Also hard on the city, another policy (called 60/20/20) says that Seattle must take 62 percent of reductions, while other reductions are split between the eastern and southern suburbs. "It was essentially a political construct before the suburbs would support any new revenue for Metro," Phillips says. "They felt they have been on the short end of that."
But in practice, 40/40/20 resulted in "routes with only three or six people on the bus, and it's not making sense because buses cost a lot to run and you want them as full as you can [get them]," says Gerken.
"The more the task force looked at that, they said it may have had its day, but that day is no more," Phillips adds. The group worked under a consensus deal that its members would only support recommendations they all "can support or live with."
Gerken says the boundaries that define service areas "are artificial," adding, "More of [the service reductions] will be felt on the Eastside, but that's because they have more nominally performing routes, and that is because you have demand that is lower and people don't rely on the buses as much."
But cutting routes isn't enough, given the financial shortfall.
Which brings us to the task force's second challenge: raising money. Financing government in a recession—no less, a recession characterized by a national movement against taxes and marked locally by a slew of state initiatives recently won or lost based largely on their ability to reduce taxes—will be tricky. The group intends to lobby Olympia to do one of two things: come up with money or give the county new taxing authority. For instance, the state could allow the county to collect a motor vehicle excise tax, or perhaps even collect a gas tax.
Seattle City Council member Tom Rasmussen, chair of the council's Transportation Committee and a member of the task force, says the group never made a specific taxing recommendation because that could "create polarization of legislature."
Gerken isn't optimistic. "In the near term, everybody is broke. I'm not sure how the lobbying piece is going to work," he says. "It's hard to get politicians to line up together."
In contrast, Phillips has his lobbying message down pat for a legislature that is used to spending billions of dollars on massive highway projects (like the deep-bore tunnel and expanding the 520 bridge). "The transit dollar you use and spend is the best highway dollar you've got," Phillips says. "If you get more people on the bus, you don't have to build new highways."
House Speaker Frank Chopp (D-43) said he could not comment on the recommendations until after press time.